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Listening Even When It’s Hard to Believe Someone

Susan O'Halloran

3 min read

Dec 6, 2023

29

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After college, I worked at an ad agency. I was having a great time there and loved the people for whom I worked. One of my coworkers, Holly, was a terrific secretary and, when the position opened up for the front desk receptionist job, she applied. The receptionist job would pay more and, at our agency, held more prestige.


Holly was quite overweight. When she didn’t get the job, she came to me dejected and said, “I know it’s because I’m fat. I have all the skills they needed and more. I can work those phones, greet clients and make them feel welcomed. While clients wait in the reception area, I can have a job half sold before they even step into one of the sales rep’s offices. But they just want a chicky-chick girl up front to look good.”


I said, “Ummmm.” But inside I was thinking, “Oh, no, Holly, that can’t be it. You mustn’t have interviewed well. Sandy and Ed (the owners) would never do that.”

Now, older and a bit wiser, I think she may have been right. However, back then, I couldn’t even consider it. Things were going well for me. I felt fairly treated and so, I assumed, it was the same for everyone else.


When we’re in the insider position, and all of us are some of the time, it’s easy to believe our systems run on meritocracy: if I’m doing well, it’s because of my efforts. If anyone else isn’t succeeding, it must be because they aren’t up to snuff.


Insiders fail to see that the rules aren’t the same for everyone and that, as Insiders, they are operating from a position of privilege. It’s not that Insiders aren’t working hard, but other people can work just as hard without the same results.


Prime Time Live did a documentary of two friends — one Black and one White — trying to set up their lives in St. Louis. The video camera followed the two men around as they shopped and applied for jobs and housing. The White man, John, would be warmly greeted by salespeople. They’d joke, laugh and chat with him. In one case, John was given the master key to an entire apartment complex to look around on his own.


On the other hand, Glen, the Black man, often got the cold shoulder in retail stores, or, even worse, the salespeople shadowed him to make sure he didn’t steal anything. In the case of the rental property, Glen showed up five minutes after John and was told the apartment was rented. If those cameras hadn’t been following them around, what might John have started to think if Glen complained each evening about the poor treatment he was receiving?


Yes! He could easily think that his buddy, Glen, was a whiner or lacking in social skills or a poor interviewer – anything to make sense of the disparity between their very different treatment. When we pass the buck and ask, “What’s wrong with him (the outsider)?” we’ve missed a chance to challenge the system and create a more fair environment.


I’ve learned I need to listen to my friends and colleagues who are having very different outcomes than me. Wherever I am an insider on any dimension of diversity – race, age, geography, ethnicity, religion and so on – I know now that my experience is not everyone’s experience.

Listening to each other can point the way to things that may need to change to make our world truly inclusive.


This article may be reproduced by giving the following credit: by Sue O’Halloran, author, story artist and race equity speaker/consultant. Find Sue and her store at:  www.SusanOHalloran.com

Susan O'Halloran

3 min read

Dec 6, 2023

29

0

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